In the growing and long-running row between publishers and Amazon, the internet giant is seeking rights to publish their own edition of a paper book if stocks run out. They would do this using POD (Print On Demand) technology.
On the face of it, this proposal seems a no-brainer; after all, you can't sell a damn thing if the market stall is empty. Duh.
But hang on. What about the author?
As one of those lunatics with a foot in both camps (I'm published by traditional legacy publishers and I do my own thing on Kindle, because I like to make my business - and living - where I can), I'm very fortunate on both scores. I get to decide on my own covers and layout for my self-published books, but I'm also fortunate to work with a publisher (Severn House) who, six books down the line (the Harry Tate and Marc Portman spy series), still asks me my opinion on the proposed cover and blurb. Which is very nice of them.
But this isn't the norm, I gather, so I count myself lucky. Because it's not just marketing gurus who know the importance of cover design. Having conceived and written a book, the last thing any author wants is a cover that comes across like a damp handshake from a man in a grubby raincoat.
But whether you get a say in this process or not, what Amazon is proposing puts a greater distance between author and book. We sign away the rights to a publisher in the full knowledge of what we are doing. Fair enough. But having another party then jumping in to decide on printing, layout and design of the same product (even if, as has been suggested, they would want the electronic files - and therefore presumably the same design structure - from publishers), it would inevitably become open to change on quality, layout, colour, paper, structure - in fact all the things which make a book look good.
I've seen some POD books, and while some are good, some aren't. They look cheap.
This latest proposal has, predictably, prompted further charges of 'bullying' from industry sources. Although as I write this, and if BBC reports are true, it's the independents who have voiced concerns, while some of the Big 5 have refused to comment.
Why is that?
There are two ways traditional publishers can go on this issue. One is to cave in and agree to this, thereby in the process potentially handing over complete production responsibility to Amazon. Worryingly, this might appeal to some of the bean counters in the industry, who would see this is a way of cost-cutting. Authors? Who the hell are they? They signed on the dotted line, didn't they?
The other way (which I favour) is for publishers to grow some and say no.
There's an even simpler way of stopping this proposal in its tracks - one which they already control: they could make sure a book doesn't go out of stock in the first place.
After all, Amazon isn't the only company to have POD facilities.
As anyone who has worked in any sales industry will know, every product has its own momentum - especially when new. If that momentum slows or stops for any reason, it's very hard to get it back. Sometimes impossible.
And if there's anything more frustrating than the damp handshake I refer to above, it's the knowledge that readers cannot get your book even if they want it. Because they'll simply go somewhere else.
And there's not a thing we can do about it.